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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Back In the States

I have returned from Germany (the university town of Darmstadt, to answer previous inquiries) with a renewed sense of appreciation for the cities of both Europe and the United States. I will probably have several tales to tell about my travels on the Audobahn, local tram system, high speed trains, and airports.

The E-25 in Belgium. Photo copyright Dave Murphy.

It dawned on me that today marks a year of running this site (although there have been several obvious periods of lull) I have been most fortunate to have a good number of followers and I wanted to take the time to thank them, even the ones who don't often agree with me. This has been a fun and worthwhile extra curricular activity for me.

Naturally, while in Europe, I took advantage of the walkability and the ample mass transit. But what really surprised me was that I fell in love with the freeway system. I didn't drive often, mostly only on day trips to neighborhing cities, but Germany's Audobahn and European freeways in general are fun and exciting to drive. One thing in particular I noticed was that the expressways, often only two lanes in each direction, have much smaller footprints than interstate highways, and much less traffic. They are generally straighter and flatter than interstates, which allows the carriage lanes to be slightly narrower and the travel speeds to be higher (unlimited in Germany!). It made me wonder, for example, if the Beltway through Montgomery County might be able to survive with three straight, flat lanes instead of four lanes curving and weaving along Rock Creek.

Another thing I liked about the expressways were the ample underpasses. In the rare few areas where the expressways traversed an urban area or even a small town, the street grid was not sacrificed to make way for the new freeway. In Luxembourg, I noticed that it was common for freeways to tunnel underneath entire towns, something probably more affordable in a country as affluent as Luxembourg. The parts that run through forest or farmland are more engaging to their surroundings, making the drive much more scenic and pleasurable than say driving I-95 between Washington and Baltimore. Often in wilderness areas, bridges of vegetation would go over the roads to allow wildlife to pass across the highway. I know these exist in the US, but they were seemingly ubiquitous in the Ardennes Forest. In addition to being functional, they ad a bit more scenery to the highway.

Expressways rarely run through cities, however. They are connected by arterials that cross the freeways outside the cities. In the center cities, there is usually little if any vehicular traffic at all. Most cities that I visited have large pedestrian-only areas, but areas that are on the street grid. In Darmstadt, the main two streets drop below the center of town and intersect underground at a stop sign, a rather exotic layout by American standards. All of this made way for various layers of pedestrian, bicycle, and transit routing, roads often sharing all four modes of transportation.

Driving in general is not as dumbed down. driving through towns or even on the expressways is not quite as intuitive as it is in America. It makes American roads seem overengineered, oversigned, and generally dumbed down for drivers. Interestingly, Germany has far lower incidence of fatalities on the road compared to the US. The entire time I was in Europe I only saw a single traffic accident, whereas it is not uncommon for me to see two while driving the six miles from my house to work here in Maryland. Anecdotal evidence that our overengineering of roads results in drivers paying less attention to what they are doing.

Another great design of European Freeways: they focus your attention at a point on the horizon. Naturally, the narrower streets, usually lined with three storey buildings, direct attention straight ahead. But the expressways were often flanked closely by trees. One Expressway in the Netherlands is lined by 100-foot tall rows of trees, almost like a grand hallway welcoming you onto the freeway. In addition to looking nicer, I believe that this focuses the eyes forward and therefore makes driving that much safer on the road.

I found getting around Germany, France, and the Low Countries to be very easy on all modes of transportation. I was quite surprised to be so taken with the highway system. More posts will come as I get settled back in to the groove here at home. Thanks again for making the last year of blogging so enjoyable.


Adam said...

Yet another example of how Europe manages to do something so much better than us. Simply incredible.

Dave said...

Interesting insights on how expressways are handled in Europe. As Adam basically said it is another example we should learn form Europe.